I lead services regularly as a ba’al tefilla on Shabbat, chagim, and the High Holiday – and occasionally read the megila and prepare the Shabbat leining in our community, too.
It’s a skill for which I am deeply grateful. I can also say unequivocally that had it not been for the teen minyan in which I was fortunate to have participated during the early 1970s, I would not be interested nor proficient enough today to be leading services. And even more important, I would likely not be as punctual and careful about attending shul services regularly.
Recently I had the opportunity to discuss the subject of teen minyanim with Rabbi Shimmy Trencher, the Upper School Principal at the Bi-Cultural Hebrew Academy of CT in Stamford, who shares the same feelings as I do about the tremendous benefits of a teen minyan.
Trencher was first introduced to what a strong and vibrant teen minyan can accomplish when he was living in Silver Spring, MD. “I was amazed to see 100-150 teens in shul every Shabbat — and the teen minyan packed on both sides of the mechitza,” said Trencher. “It was clear that the parents and synagogue leadership had put significant resources in creating this program, and more importantly, had been thoughtful in the ways in which they empowered the teens to ‘own’ the minyan.”
It’s not easy to build a teen minyan from scratch, and convince teens to attend such a minyan, but Trencher believes if a community is committed to making it happen, it can be accomplished successfully. Trencher explained, “For adolescents, the importance of their relationships with peers makes the social environment very important. If shul is ‘the place to be’ and where they will see many other teens every single week, this will draw them to shul. And in terms of a teen minyan, there is another very important element: they provide the opportunity for teens to make the minyan their own and invest in it. Research shows that empowerment builds commitment, so whether teens are davening, leining, giving divrei Torah, or coordinating these or other aspects of the minyan, a successful teen minyan will develop a core group of committed teens and then be able to build from there.”
In addition to serving as a training ground for adolescents in terms of becoming a ba’al tefilla and ba’al keriah, as well as delivering a d’var Torah, the teen minyan addresses the issue of engaging our teenagers in prayer and connecting them to the synagogue. Trencher said, “The research clearly indicates that teens are less engaged in shul, and in religious activities generally, than their parents. Modeling is certainly key, and teens who see their parents committed to shul are more likely to see value in that commitment and take it on for themselves. However, teens also want to individuate, so they sometimes begin to balk at the idea of going to shul with their parents. A teen minyan keeps them in shul, while also associating it with their peers, or their ‘second family.’ In addition, when the shul becomes the Shabbat morning hub for teens, it also provides an opportunity for them to make arrangements to socialize Shabbat afternoon, thereby enhancing the day for teens in the community. But the most long-lasting benefit is the accumulation of skills to lead the services. Similar to the original foundations of the Young Israel movement, which sought to create learning and davening opportunities that engaged young people, a teen minyan provides this same kind of opportunity for adolescents, ideally within their own space.”
What about leadership roles for young women in a teen minyan? Trencher said, “I believe that female involvement is very important in synagogue life, and each shul needs to rely on their own rabbi in terms of deciding how the women can be involved. When I was in Silver Spring, the young women coordinated all of the divrei Torah, which were given at the end of the services.”
Some youngsters are simply uncomfortable leading services or leining … or lack the desire to learn. Can they still find a place for themselves in a teen minyan? Trencher believes they can. “I think we do a disservice to all of us when we focus only on the leadership aspect, which is compelling for some, but we forget about the fact that, for the vast majority of us, davening at shul is about our own personal prayer while being part of the tzibbur. In other words, most of us are not leining, davening, or speaking on any given week; we’re participating as a member of the community through our presence, through our kol tefilla. We need to encourage participation in davening in all its forms, including participation ‘from the pews.’”
Some folks believe that creating a teen minyan takes away from the importance of attending the main minyan, but Trencher is not too concerned about this. Said Trencher, “Most larger shuls these days already offer a variety of minyanim on Shabbat morning. While the idea of having one minyan is certainly appealing, we all recognize that in order to provide the best davening experience to the widest range of people, options are extremely helpful. A good teen minyan that builds leaders, engages more youth, and gives teens their own space within the shul has tremendous benefits that, in my opinion, outweigh any disadvantages. One caveat … I believe that teen minyans should also welcome the teens’ parents. While the davening, leining, aliyot, and divrei Torah should be reserved exclusively for the teens, a parent who wants to daven alongside his or her child should have the opportunity to do so.”
Finally, Trencher believes that there must be consistency if a teen minyan is going to be successful. Trencher explained, “In order to harness the power of habit, I would suggest that teen minyan run every week and not be a ‘special event’ that occurs once a month or every other Shabbos. Especially in communities where attendance at shul is trailing off as children approach the teen years, the regularity of a weekly teen minyan can help maintain strong Shabbat shul attendance for teens.”
Does your shul have a regular weekly teen minyan? If not, perhaps it’s time for the synagogue to consider implementing one.